March 11, 2020Tramps and Slapstick

Inspiration sometimes comes out of the blue from the oddest places.

Many, many years ago, on a Friday night after a dinner out, my husband and I found ourselves wandering aimlessly through our local Wal-mart. It was just one of those nights ... there was nothing much to go home to ... nothing good on TV ... nobody to go visit ... no good movies at the theater ... it was still early in the evening and we were just killing time.

We ended up in the electronics department where they had a selection of really old movies that you could buy for $14.99. That was a reasonable price for an evening's entertainment, and an old movie you've never seen is just as good as a new movie you've never seen.

But we weren't having much luck. Nothing we saw looked interesting that night. The whole thing turned silly and we ended up with a ridiculous old black and white comedy. We knew it'd be good for some laughs ... but not laughs with it, but rather laughs at it. We were going take it home, pop some popcorn and for the full 72 minutes amuse ourselves by poking fun at it. Because we knew it was going to be ridiculous ...

But life is full of surprises ... for those 72 minutes – while I can say there were appropriate laughs in appropriate places – I sat totally transfixed. The movie we brought home that night was The Gold Rush by Charlie Chaplin.

I had never watched a silent movie before. And I'd never considered Chaplin. I wasn't much into slapstick. And just like today my favorite monster film, Gorgo, looks pretty hokey next to Jurassic Park, silent films looked pretty hokey next to the technicolor cinemascope wonders of those days.

Oceana Roll Dance

I was familiar with the Tramp character, but only because he was a cultural icon. I had seen Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett do their spoofs of him, and thought they were cute and funny. But I had short-changed myself by never watching the real man in action. I should've been smarter than that ... there were valid reasons why Chaplin was an icon.

Chaplin was a genius. As well as being the lead actor, he was the screenwriter, the director, the choreographer. He wrote the musical scores. And, no stunt doubles or special effects created on computers ... check out the skating scene from Modern Times and the clever way it was staged for the camera. Just brilliant.

Like I stated earlier, I don't really care for slapstick. And while there's plenty of slapstick in a Chaplin film, it's never random, it always fits into the story line, it's always choreographed and timed to perfection, and never forced or unnatural. Two perfect examples are the scene in The Gold Rush where the Tramp, as the Lone Prospector, and Big Jim McKay are trapped in the cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff and the boxing scene in City Lights.

After seeing The Gold Rush, I had to see more and began collecting his work. If you like comedy with a Mel Brooks kind of feel, check out Chaplin's first "talkie", The Great Dictator. He plays dual roles as a Jewish Barber and the Dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, a spoof of Adolf Hitler. Modern Times is a really fun film, and you'll hear the real Chaplin's voice as a singing waiter near the end. He also has a few dance moves during his number that come mighty close to being Michael Jackson's moon walk. I thought it absolutely was until I rewound and watched it again!

But hands down my favorite Chaplin film is City Lights, the last silent film he made. He was advised not to make it silent. The "talkies" had arrived and the movie-going public was naturally all agog over films with sound. Another silent film would surely be a flop. But part of being a genius is having great instincts, and City Lights turned out to be one of his best films. I could watch it a million times back to back, and that final poignant scene would rip my heart out every time. You'll just have to watch it yourself. Have a hanky ready ... you will need it!

When watching all these silent films, I'm savoring every frame and pondering:

Wow! How did he get so much story told with such limited resources?

No sound. Limited written words. Just actions and expressions and yet it's still so easy to follow the story line.

What is it about the Tramp that makes him so appealing? How does Chaplin pull a viewer in to be so sympathetic to the Tramp?

What devices does Chaplin use to move the story along? How does he make logical transitions between scenes?

How do the actors portray their characters without using sound? How do we know the blind girl is distraught? How do we know the Tramp is in love with her?

How exaggerated do the actors' movements and gestures and facial expressions need to be in order to understand what they are trying to communicate?

It's because these films really appealed to me that I was so interested and therefore really looking closely. In life we encounter situations, people, works of art, occupations that fascinate us and we move in for a close up inspection, to either learn more about it or learn how to do it ourselves.

Like I was trying to express in the Grand Illusion articles, as we go through life, we have experiences and observe the world around us. Those experiences and observations become a part of us and will influence our work as we write and draw. Even when we aren't aware.

All those many years ago I discovered the Chaplin films and was totally enchanted. Preparing for this blog, I spent a weekend re-watching some of those ... this time through my eyes as a children's book illustrator. It struck me that when illustrating a story, I have many considerations that are similar to a director's:

How do the pictures help move the story along? Do they make the reader want to turn the page to see what's next?

How exaggerated do the characters' gestures and poses need to be in order to understand what they are doing or what they are trying to communicate?

How can the pictures to help a reader understand the story? Do the pictures enhance and enlarge the story?

How can I protray the characters to help the reader to idenify and sympathize with them?

Now I'm not the Charlie Chaplin of children's books ... not even in his league! But I hope you get the gist of what I'm trying to say ...

Keep dreaming. Keep moving toward your goals. But if you find yourself in the middle of the "waiting years", don't despise them. Keep your eyes and ears open! Everything and everybody you encounter is having an impact on you and your work. Savor every minute and keep moving forward.

One day you will look back at the path you've been on and know for sure it was the right one all along ....

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  • Dixie says:
    2020-03-17, 15:50:28
    Very good. Thanks.
  • Kathy says:
    2020-03-11, 14:43:36
    Good one; thoughtfully written.
  • BILL says:
    2020-03-11, 11:26:08
    I remember him also, pure talent.